Monica Lee is the author of four memoirs/autobiographical fiction books: her latest is Church Sweet Home: A Renovation to Warm the Soul. Also available: Truth, Dare, Double Dare, Promise or Repeat: On Finding the Meaning of "Like" in 1982, How to Look Hot & Feel Amazing in Your 40s: The 21-Day Age-Defying Diet, Exercise & Everything Makeover Plan and The Percussionist's Wife.
A friend gave me this word art, and I knew immediately I wanted to display inside the belfry room of our chome.
The belfry room remains halfway between unrestored and finished. I actually ran out of primer when painting the walls, which is evident in the picture.
I appreciate the symbolism of this message, displayed in my unfinished space in the midst of a worldwide pandemic. All of life right now is in the space between before and after. God is here, too, if only we can stand still long enough to know it.
Despite a deadly virus. Despite snow and severe weather. Despite a total lack of attention. Look what’s blooming.
Little purple petals, covering the ground.
A poof! of blooms.
Oh, those hardy tulips. Every year.
And hostas, too. As you can see, nothing keeps a dandelion down.
And here’s my favorite. A lone tulip, blooming in the front garden. A former member of the church planted this tulip who knows how many years ago. Tulips are such a beautiful reminder that what we do now matters later.
A big thank you to my photographer, St. Johnny, who obliged to finding evidence of flowers in my yard for me.
As lovely as they are, I have a few more flowers in my archive to share with you. These fresh flowers were given to us by the spiral stair proprietress for our open house last fall, a generous gift of congratulations. My mother, bless her heart, arranged them for me. Enjoy the bouquets.
A couple bathroom vanity bouquets. And my favorite…
Mom arranged this one in an heirloom art deco vase given to me by my mother-in-law.
Here is a great spring spruce-up project, and I’m sure you’ll be shocked to hear it involves paint, my favorite transformer.
I claim no credit for this before-and-after. Tyler’s idea, Tyler’s execution. Bravo, Tyler!
This is how our side door looked when we purchased the church. Once inside, you could enter the main floor or go down the steps to the basement. The food pantry had been operating in the basement, so this was the most commonly used entrance to the church then. When we acquired the church, the food pantry had moved across town, and nature was reclaiming the scenery as evidenced in this picture.
During reconstruction, we eliminated the entry to the main floor, but the door remained to provide access to the basement. The door was in good shape and functional, having been installed sometime in the ’70s or ’80s, I’m guessing, but it looked a little too commercial for our tastes, especially since it was on the same side of the house as the magnificent castle doors that replaced the ugly red ones at the main entrance.
So Tyler repainted the side door. With wood grain!
Using a wood grain tool he acquired in his favorite method (that is, the internet) and two colors of paint (lighter and darker), he made the door look like it’s made of wood instead of fiberglass.
Tyler’s tips: Remove the door (don’t paint in place), remove the door hardware, paint outdoors, and don’t do it in full-sunshine when it’s 90 degrees (that last tip, he learned by sweaty experience when he completed this project last summer). We already had one of the paint colors, so for less than $30, we got a new door.
So much better. I hate that exterior light above the door. The electricity was unhooked (uncoupled? eliminated?) during construction, so the light doesn’t work. It’ll get rewired when we finish the basement at some point, and I’ll find a new fixture then.
So there you go, an effective afternoon project that updates a visible part of your house.
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Today’s headline is a partial quote from George Washington Carver, early 20th century scientist. Allow me to respectfully share the full quote:
“Nothing is more beautiful than the loveliness of the woods before sunrise. At no other time have I so sharp an understanding of what God means to do with me as in these hours of dawn.”
When in a pandemic, do everything at a social distance.
So it is with book launches.
Second only to an in-person reading inside our chome is a Facebook Live video of me reading passages from the memoir based on this blog, Church Sweet Home: A Renovation to Warm the Soul.
If you’re interested in me or the memoir or the guy who made it all most of it happen, check out this impromptu event we hosted on Tuesday evening to celebrate the launch of the book:
The event was “public,” so I might be mistaken, but I don’t think you even have to be on Facebook to watch it. It’s about 15 minutes long.
I’m an indie author, which means I don’t have a publicist. I appreciate any love you have to share. If you’re a fan and a maven, that is “a trusted expert, who seeks to pass timely and relevant knowledge on to others,” I would love for you to share the video or any of the following with your friends and family:
And if you read the book and like it, please review it wherever you bought it and/or on Goodreads.
And not to worry, I’ll keep you apprised of goings on at Church Sweet Home right here. In fact, I’m headed out (wish me luck and good health!) to collect some info this very afternoon to share with you later. Have a great weekend!
My memoir based on this blog comes out today at online booksellers everywhere.
The book version of this blog has a new prologue, a proper ending and none of the navigation challenges of reading individual blog posts. If you’re already a fan, it’s a lovely keepsake and an easy way to let a friend in on the story. It’s the perfect choice in the middle of a pandemic when you need to be reminded of how wonderful home can be. Here’s the official blurb:
After buying an old Methodist church to renovate into their home, a plucky fifty-something couple who gets excited by reclaimed wood and deals on Craigslist goes to work, undaunted by risks to their marital relationship, creaky bodies and bank account.
The 126-year-old structure has been stripped of pews, the altar, even the kitchen sink. The wiring is a Frankenstein mix of early 20th century knobs and tubes, copper wire and modern Romex. And the seller discloses the 40-foot bell tower is “rooted,” which the intrepid homebuyers Tyler and Monica take to mean as “rotted.” Friends wonder if there are bats in their belfry, literally and metaphorically, as the pair spends months juggling contractors of varying dependability, wandering around a thousand home improvement stores and sanding miles of wood floors, laboring to prove the doubters wrong.
Based on the real-time memoir Monica blogged by night, Church Sweet Home chronicles the amusing, exhausting and ultimately satisfying fixer-upper follies of turning a derelict community treasure into a dream home.
At some point, I may have a book signing at the chome, but I’m not ready to promise such an event in light of unseen viruses. Instead, I’m throwing a virtual party: Join me (and Tyler, too) for a Facebook Live book reading at my author page. (Early on in the life of this blog, I promised it would be little like a long episode of Fixer Upper, and I expect this Facebook Live appearance will be a little like those sideline conferences between Chip and Joanna.) Also, in honor of the Tequila Budget (and sure, Cinco de Mayo, too), we’ll toast with a shot of tequila. Here are the details:
When I created this blog almost two and half years ago, “Church Sweet Home” came to me immediately as a clever name that encapsulated our goals for the old church we’d purchased to turn into our home. We hoped to turn a church into our home, sweet home.
The tagline required a bit more rumination: a blog about transformation and sanctuary.
The transformation was obvious. I told the story of how we turned a 126-year-old religious structure into a cozy home. I chose the word “sanctuary” for its double meaning: the sanctuary of a church, where congregants worship, is considered sacred. And sanctuary means “a place of refuge or safety.”
Sanctuary seems all the more appropriate in a world riddled with COVID-19 where home truly is a place of safety.
“Home” always evokes warm, fuzzy feelings, wherever home might be. No wonder, home, sweet home is a saying. We’re always looking for home, making a home, just being ourselves at home, reminiscing about home or trying to go back home. Home represented love, comfort and security long before lethal viruses floated through bandana face masks sending us to the hospital to die horrible, lonely deaths.
But especially in a world where simply going out for groceries feels like you’re taking your life into your hands, home is a potent balm for fear. Home is the only place in the world where you can relax. And breathe. Literally, it’s safe to fill our lungs with the air at home. It might not even be safe to breathe out there.
The mission statement we used when reconstructing the old church stated, “We strive to create a comfortable sanctuary in the modern world, built solidly and maintained orderly.” That is, we wanted to make “a comfortable place of refuge.”
The colors and textures I used to decorate the interior expressively fulfilled this purpose. I avoided reds, oranges and yellows because warm colors bring to mind excitement and caution. Very few pieces of furniture in the church could be described as “modern,” because sleek and angular are anything but comfortable. Instead, you can find a lot of creams and grays in our home, and we have furry carpets, cozy throws and soft pillows everywhere.
But more than the physical, I also try to practice peace at home (whether I’m in a former church or not). My husband will tell you I fail to do this often (I never raise my voice!), but peace is always the goal in any case. Home should be an oasis, a shelter in the storm; it has to be in order to be a “sanctuary.”
During demolition, we unearthed a little quilted banner tucked in amongst the Christmas decorations. It said simply, “Peace” with an appliqued bell. It had a bell! I loved it then because it highlighted a unique feature of our structure, the belfry (and it was made by a former parishioner, so it was special). But it also reinforced the theme I wanted to convey with the church: it should be a place of peace.
During the past several weeks of self- and government-imposed isolation, I have found a lot of peace. But I’m an introvert who has worked at home for years and enjoys creating worlds in front of my computer. I can only imagine how chaotic it is at home for families who are crawling the walls, trying to work and learn together in a claustrophobic space. Or how insecure home feels when the cupboards are bare. Or how lonely home is when all you’ve got is yourself, a bunch of frozen dinners for one and a Netflix queue. For some, a home, even a warm and fuzzy one, has become a prison, even if it is a refuge from infection.
I’m praying for those folks. I’m praying home can be all the warm and fuzzy things the word represents, a sacred place of refuge.
Before we came along, I’d wager the most common music you’d hear inside the religious structure that became our home was “Amazing Grace,” “Silent Night, Holy Night,” Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March” and “Jesus Loves Me.”
And then we bought the former Methodist church, and the soundtrack changed. Instead of organs and choirs, we summoned a good drum track and guitar.
If my new memoir, “Church Sweet Home” had a playlist, this would be it:
“Anticipation” by Carly Simon: This was our theme as we waited for the closing date.
“What’s the Buzz” from the musical Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar: This was music for the village, as residents wondered what we were up to inside.
“Superstition” by Stevie Wonder: A little funk for demolition.
“Whip It” by Devo: Crack that whip, boys!
“Bat Out of Hell” by Meat Loaf: We have a belfry. And we had a bat.
“You Can Call Me Al” by Paul Simon: This melodious bit of music was the leitmotif for our master carpenter. His presence recurred during tiling, construction, garage building and belfry repair. One of his favorites for background music comes next.
“If You Want to Get to Heaven” by The Ozark Mountain Daredevils: You got to raise a little hell.
“Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin: This is the music for installing a spiral stairway.
“Take Me to the Church” by Hozier: The lyrics of this song aren’t quite right, but the title sure is.
“Start Me Up” by The Rolling Stones: Tyler played this one at top volume during one early par-tay after we moved in. It was awesome!
“Big Time” by Peter Gabriel: Tyler says this song would come up on the playlist for every book I write, I like it so much. It is the perfect tune for him, my Big Sexy who constructed our big house for our big dreams.
The final song in the playlist would have to be Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” with full symphony and choir. Between Tyler’s massive sound system and the naturally fantastic acoustics of the church sanctuary, this piece will move an atheist to his knees. And its final “Hallelujahs” are the crowning glory of the completed renovation.
Like a bat out of hell, I’ll be gone when the morning comes.
~ Meat Loaf
So, tell the truth now, do you have bats in your belfry?
The answer is definitively no. We do not have bats in our belfry.
However, we have had a bat swooping around the fans in our 20-foot great room ceiling. And if I’m being honest, it happened more than once.
Ardent fans of the blog will remember the first time we found a bat in the church, and I recounted that slapstick incident in the book.
It (or its relative) visited twice more, after we moved in. The first time, the little imp disappeared. Suddenly, he was winging around the room while we were watching TV, we chased him around for a bit, and then *poof* he was gone. Very disconcerting, it was.
The second time, my hero of a husband batted him down (get it? He batted down a bat?) with a fish net and then removed him from the great room in a bucket. Since it’s illegal to kill bats, let’s just say he flew off to greener pastures. Or a better belfry. Whatever.
Tyler suspected the bats were getting into the false roof of the church through the chimney (not the belfry), so that’s been sealed up, and we haven’t seen a bat in a long time. We could never figure out how they were getting from the false roof into the house. That part’s a mystery.
Metaphorically, do we have bats in our belfry? Also a definitive no as evidenced by the end result we live in. We weren’t crazy. We were crazy like foxes: seemingly foolish but in fact extremely cunning.
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My memoir Church Sweet Home: A Renovation to Warm the Soul comes out May 5. The paperback will be available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Preorder the ebook at Amazon Kindle,Barnes & Noble Nook and Kobo.
Among the treasured objects displayed at the church are works of art created by my father.
He probably wouldn’t call them “art,” but the more he refines his craft, the better he gets.
Dad is a woodworker, and you can bet it’s been his refuge during the pandemic. He’s been very productive. When he was younger, he made bigger pieces of furniture, including shelving for two of my previous houses, an entire master bedroom set for himself, a bathroom vanity for my sister, a warehouse full of kid-sized kitchen tables and chairs, “regular size” tables, end tables, coffee tables and more. Recently, his focus has shifted to smaller, more sophisticated pieces, and some of these lovelies have made it into the church.
Bowls, made with hundreds of pieces of wood and turned until smooth and functional, are some of his works. You might remember this bowl, the first one he gave me.
I received another bowl for my birthday, sort of opposite in color. I don’t have a picture of that one, but here’s a similar one he gifted to my sister.
Dad also made the wooden basket on the left, and the beautiful cutting board, one for each my sister and me, which he directed both of us to put into use, which I did, by using it as a styling item on my counter. But to make him happy, here it is, in “use” as a cheese board.
That cutting board is quite a feat of wood manipulation. Those darker pieces of curved wood are not veneers, they go through the whole piece.
Recently, Dad also gifted me with a functional piece I use many days at my desk.
It’s a microphone of sorts, amplifying music or radio sound from my smart phone which fits neatly in the slot. It’s quite clever. Those stripes are not paint; they’re a different type of wood integrated into the piece.
And one final piece to share: Dad made this candle holder as a house warming gift for our new down-south condo.
The flickering candles are like little beacons of hope. Dad’s works of art spread joy everywhere they go.
Before and after photos are satisfying. In the same minute, you see the agony of the mess along side its potential: the thrill of victory. Plus, there’s a little spot-the-difference mystery. Is that really the same person/pantry/porch/plastic surgery patient?
But I think the subject of the before and after photos finds them even more satisfying than just any old viewer. Because they know the work that came between the before and the after. As I prepare to launch Church Sweet Home, the memoir based on this blog that has depended heavily on the power of transformation, Tyler and I have been reflecting on our favorite before-and-afters of our church conversion project.
Tyler’s favorite before and after transformation is so obscure, I haven’t shared photos of it until now (and it wasn’t easy finding these shots among the 10,000 photos I took of the renovation). His favorite transformation is the back egress.
Here’s the before:
Originally, the only back door in the church was below ground level. This would never do for Tyler’s vision, which included an attached garage. We needed to get from the garage into the house without having to go through the basement. This transformation required many things: relocating the wires that anchored the power pole, jack-hammering the concrete steps to reroute them inside the garage, building a garage, removing the lean-to, cutting a doorway, and building a walkway over the stairway.
This walkway is what Tyler is most proud of—that he thought of it at all and figured out a way to make it happen. The walkway could have been built of wood, but its depth would have intruded on the headroom over the stairway. Instead, he had a steel fabricator make a bridge that was inches shallower but still strong enough to convey a person over the stairway.
Here’s a look at the before-and-after from inside the church:
A closet originally filled the space where the back door was cut.
Now my favorite transformation: the headboard in the master bedroom.
Tyler built a new wall on the right side of the window seen above. Then he and my stepson built a half-wall, an idea for a headboard that I saw on an episode of Fixer Upper. Tyler then created a feature by nailing on wood we salvaged from the basement. It came in a rainbow of distressed colors; all it needed was a couple of coats of clear polyurethane.
The headwall was dressed up with some church-window wall art on the shelf. The space is lit with chandeliers we found in storage when we demoed the church. I cleaned them up, spray-painted them and lit them with new lightbulbs. Tyler tracked down a couple of old bank safes on Craigslist, and they became our nightstands.
The room also has a tray ceiling. Rope lighting is tucked inside, and Tyler can change the color of the lighting with his smart phone. Very romantic! This before and after is my favorite because it’s just so pretty.
If you’re a fan of before and after transformations, check out the Before & After tab on the blog for lots of satisfying projects we accomplished around the church.